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(cover picture) Rosin, Thomas, Allison Jablonko, & Peter Biella
2011 Undala and Undala Conversations. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 28 minutes and 30 minutes
Reviewed 16 May 2012 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
In 2009 the ethnographer Thomas Rosin, who studied Gangwa across a span of forty years, and the producer Allison Jablonko meet to discuss the early work. In Undala Conversations they watch the original film and explore its evidence of a feudal architecture and settlement plan, the virtuosity of craft production, and the causes of the single example of ineptitude filmed among working men. They review how the first impressions of fluid movement, concealed faces, and the deft coordination of craftsmen, captured by Undala's cinematographer, Marek Jablonko, led to puzzles and questions, opening numerous avenues to research that the anthropologist pursued in subsequent years.

ABSTRACT:    Two short films—one shot almost fifty years ago, the other a conversation between the original anthropologist and film producer—convey some of the value, limitations, and subjectivities of ethnographic film.

Many things have been converging lately to make me ponder memory. In Documentary Educational Resources’ interesting re-release of the 1964 film “Undala” packaged with a conversation about the film between anthropologist Thomas Rosin and producer Allison Jablonko, we get to enjoy the memories and commentary of two people who worked together over forty years ago.

“Undala” is a very short (28 minute) film with no narration or even interviews, only visual scenes of life from a village on the edge of the Thar desert in northwestern India, set to a light musical score. The film was shot during the hot season, after harvest has been taken in; as the film tells us in a caption, this is the time when “farmers rest from nine months of work in the fields, while craftsmen repair the tools. Year-round tasks are done in the early morning and at dusk when the heat is less intense.”

The scenes feature many quotidian aspects of daily life, like pulling carts, drawing water from well, and women carrying water jugs on their heads. Men are shown doing woodwork and repairing a cart or making grass rope. Other segments portray spinning yarn, working clay for pottery, tending animals, doing metalwork in simple furnace, pounding grain, and plastering and completing a building.

“Undala” is therefore a valuable if not terribly informative visual document of a way of life 45 years ago. However, “Undala Conversations” (also short at 30 minutes) provides some appreciated perspective on the original film. Together, Rosin and Jablonko develop a narrative of a feudal town (feudal in its architecture and settlement plan) and the virtuosity of its craft production. Their discussion of farming practices reveals a sophisticated regime involving partnership in irrigated farming, including rain-water capture and aquifer recharge that made the Thar region of Rajastan one of the most densely populated deserts in the world.

They also describe the caste distribution of the neighborhood and the attendant challenge of finding public spaces to study and film, especially in relation to the community’s veiled women. The film, they stress, makes us think about the question of ‘exposure,’ for instance the overhead shots of people who might not have known they were being filmed. Another subject is the craftsmanship of the potter and the carpenter, as well as choreography of water movement. Something that we could know from the original film itself is that because of the season during which they were filming, they were not able to study the agricultural work-teams and thus focused on the craftsmen instead. In a word, we are not seeing ‘the real Thar desert culture’ but only one temporal snapshot of it. Indeed, Rosin explains that every time he has returned to Rajastan he has “lived in the community in a different way”—such as living in different building or with a different family—which had “a powerful impact on the social relationships that are the conduct of that particular trip.”

“Undala” and “Undala Conversations” are not the final authoritative word on north Indian culture, but they were never intended to be. Rather, the original film preserves a moment in time, and the two films together convey the message of the subjectivity of anthropological research—a message that we should always remember.

Level/Use: Suitable for college courses in cultural anthropology, economic anthropology, ethnographic film, and Indian/South Asian studies, as well as general audiences.